A Conversation with David Nasaw about The Patriarch, History, and Biography


By Tracy E. Robey

November 19, 2012

Three days before the release of David Nasaw’s latest biography, The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, I asked Professor Nasaw to share the path that led him to write biographies of powerful men in U.S. History and his process of researching and writing.  Given Nasaw’s busy schedule, I expected to write a short profile that drew on a few moments of conversation between speaking engagements.  Instead, I found him willing to discuss the thorniest challenges we face as historians and biographers and to share his own journey to becoming a Distinguished Professor of American History.

Days after our conversation, a very favorable review of Nasaw’s The Patriarch appeared on the cover on the The New York Times Book Review.  The Times review took me by surprise—although I served as a fact-checker for the manuscript this spring and thus knew well in advance that the book would be fantastic—because books by historians rarely receive such widespread attention.

Academics do not tend to write popular books for large audiences.  Well-known scholars confess that their most popular monographs sell no more than five hundred or perhaps one thousand copies.  Nasaw is expected to reach a much broader audience and sell many times that.

Nasaw himself confirms the improbability of his own journey to becoming a popular author approached by Edward Kennedy to write the biography of his father, Joseph P. Kennedy.  While Nasaw is best known as a historian of the United States, he transitioned to working in American History only after writing a dissertation on Jean-Paul Sartre.  Like most historians working in universities, Nasaw did not begin his career writing biographies.  Only when contemporary political events and a shift in his own thinking intervened in the 1990s did he decide to write his first biography.

This is the story, told in his own words, of how David Nasaw, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Professor of American History, came to write U.S. History, write biographies, and write The Patriarch.


Perhaps the most surprising thing I learned in the course of our conversation was that David Nasaw, celebrated U.S. historian, did not receive formal training in American History.  As an undergraduate at Bucknell University, from which he graduated in 1967, Professor Nasaw never took a course in U.S. History.  While studying for a doctorate at Columbia University, Nasaw took one course in U.S. History before graduating in 1972.  He instead studied European Intellectual History and wrote a dissertation about Sartre and his circle.

Nasaw said, “I was fascinated and remain fascinated by the generation of French artists and intellectuals” who are “beguiled by surrealism and pay no attention to history in the 30s.  They grapple with metaphysical questions, psychology, imagination, and consciousness, then BOOM! comes World War Two and they have to understand that there’s no escape from history.  The title of the dissertation was “Apprenticeship to History” and it was about the birth of engagement and commitment for this group of French intellectuals.”

Nasaw still discusses the subject with excitement despite abandoning the study of French Intellectual History shortly after receiving his Ph.D.  His shift in fields did not happen as a result of losing interest in the topics, but rather his incomplete knowledge of French.

After graduating, Nasaw realized, “I was able to fool everybody but myself: my French just wasn’t good enough.  I knew I had two choices after I got my degree: to go live in France for a couple of years and maybe learn how to read and speak French effectively so I could go on, or to move in another direction.”

The new direction would be twentieth century United States History, a shift possible due to accepting a job at Staten Island Community College, where Nasaw could teach courses of his own choosing.  In his first monograph, Schooled to Order: A Social History of Public Schooling in the United States (1979, 1980), Nasaw transitioned to writing about US History.

“Nonetheless, my training as a European Intellectual Historian was suburb and it taught me theory, methodology, and the mechanics of being a historian,” said Nasaw.


In an introduction for the American Historical Review’s special issue on biography published in 2009, Professor Nasaw called biography the historical profession’s “unloved stepchild,” which is often “shut outside with the riffraff.”  As one of the most visible academics writing biography, Nasaw acknowledges today that the stigma against historians writing biographies remains.  “For too many historians they feel that they’ve got to establish their credentials as historians before the profession is going to let them write a biography.”

I asked Nasaw how he came to embrace biography.

“I came to biography late,” he said.  “I’d never thought about writing a biography.  And I came to it by the back door.  I didn’t want to write a biography of William Randolph Hearst.  I wanted to write about politics and culture and media and money.  And I wanted to write about it at the moment when it looked like Ross Perot was going to turn the American political system upside down because he was a quirky interview, great television presence, and had all the money and all the ambition in the world.  And I thought ‘How do I write about this?’”

“There happened to be a man called William Randolph Hearst who had all the money in the world, his own media empire, and wanted to be President.  And never got there.  Why?  Once I got a little bit into Hearst’s life it became apparent that to answer these questions I had to go back further than I wanted to.  And I decided ‘What the hell,’ there something going on here and the focus of my book changed to an examination of the rise of the communications media conglomerates in the twentieth century.  It became clear to me that just as parts of the nineteenth century were the age of the railroad and were the age of electricity and the late-twentieth century the age of the computer, something happens in the late-nineteenth—early-twentieth century which marks this era culturally, politically, socially, ethically as the age of mass entertainment and mass media.”

Nasaw’s desire to find work relevant to the political debates concerning Ross Perot in the 1990s coincides with his view of how history might more generally inform national conversations.  According to Nasaw, History is “a story told from a moment in the present and looking back on the past that has to try to do two things at once and have a sort of dialectical relationship between those two things.  One is to capture the past as the past was—the pastness of the past.  The strangeness of the past.  The distance of the past.  But the historian has to at the same time acknowledge that that past is seen from a particular vantage point and that it has to respond to the question that people are asking at that moment.”

Given Nasaw’s interest in the theory of history, I asked if his turn to writing biography was inspired in some way by Hayden White’s critique of history.

“When one writes a biography one does not attempt to give a God’s eye view of the events that one is narrating or exploring.  Instead, one seizes the perspective of an individual and looks at the world through the lens of that individual,” Nasaw responded.

“I can’t tell the story of the coming of WWII as a textbook would tell it.  I’m not capable of writing the history of the New Deal or the Industrial Revolution.  But if I have as my frame—my lens, my perspective—the life and work of an individual then I can look at the world through that individual’s eyes.  I don’t accept everything that individual sees or imagine that what that individual sees is the whole picture or the true picture.  So for me, the biographical form is a post-modernist approach to post-modernist critiques of the master narrative.”

Noticing that Nasaw has now written about William Randolph Hearst, Andrew Carnegie, and Joseph P. Kennedy, I asked if he was in some way attracted to writing about “bad men” in U.S. History.

He responded, “I write about these guys not simply because they’re “bad men,” but because they’re powerful men. After the first half of my career, writing as the rest of my generation did, histories from the bottom up, I realized with a little help from Foucault that one can’t write about history in any era without writing about power: sources of power, the effects of power.  So I was attracted to writing about powerful men, but writing about them in a new and different way.  Rather than writing about the achievements of these bad men, about how the Great White Fathers made the universe we live in, I did the opposite.  And I wrote about the failure of the Great White Fathers to achieve what they wanted.  Hearst never became President.  Andrew Carnegie never solved world peace.  What was interesting to me about all these guys is that they had been pigeonholed by the writers that came before me as a particular kind of villain.  They had been rendered in black and white—they had become cartoon characters.  We thought we knew who they were as a public and as students of history, but we didn’t because no one had taken the time to take a deeper look into what they had done.”

“My goal was not to rehabilitate them in any shape.  In the reviews of The Patriarch so far, no one has said that I’ve been too kind to this man.  So I don’t try to rehabilitate them, I just try to understand them, and to do that without judging.  The historian is not a judge.  It is not our job to make theological statements about whether someone is good or bad, a saint or sinner.  It is our job to tell the story with complexity, fairness, and generosity towards points of view that we don’t agree with, but to tell it in such a way that people themselves will judge.  If somebody wants to after reading my book say, yes, he was a saint, or he was a sinner, that’s up to them.  But that’s not my goal in this—in any of the books I write, to judge people.”

I anticipated this response because I have heard Nasaw speak several times about the necessity of eschewing judgment of historical figures when writing, but I wanted to know if he believes that each person deserves to be written about with such compassion.

“I don’t know,” said Nasaw.  “I think about people like Hitler, and Goebbels, and Goering who—if there were sinners in the 20th century, if there were bad men, if there were villains, these three were right up there.  But as historians, for god’s sakes, we don’t learn anything by just painting them as villains, as evil.  The question is, one, how did they become evil?  I wouldn’t write one, but even if you were writing the history of a really bad guy, in order to understand how that guy got so bad and how that villainy produced world historic results, one has to get beyond judgment.  That doesn’t mean that we exonerate crimes against humanity.  But that we don’t focus on the criminal, we focus on the criminality and the deeds.”  Joseph P. Kennedy’s “Anti-Semitic tirades were frightening and I did not like to look at them or write about them, but they’re part of the story.”


From the view of graduate students working nearby, Professor Nasaw sat for the past six years in a solid wood chair in front of a window, placidly reviewing documents and manuscript pages.  He typed the manuscript using a computer, which he seemed to use with no more frustration than graduate students who have used computers since preschool.  Heading out around four each day, he returned with a reasonably-sized cup of drip coffee.

I asked Nasaw for his perspective on how he approached the process of writing The Patriarch.

He responded, “I begin by reading the secondary work.  Or as much of it as I need to.  You quickly discover that every biographer borrows from everybody else.  And then I put it aside.”

“Then I divided the life into chunks, into pieces.  And did the research on childhood and wrote up a draft.  Harvard and his first jobs and wrote up a draft.  What that means is that that draft is a very poor draft.  One of the reasons I never write articles like my colleagues do is that I know part of the book isn’t finished until the whole book is finished.  So I’ll write about East Boston and then two or three years later when I’m researching Kennedy’s years as Ambassador to London I’ll find an interview when he talks about life in East Boston, so I’ve got to go back to chapter one or chapter two.  The one thing I do is try to work on the book every day or five days a week except when I’m pushed to the wall and to be careful not to spend a lot of time in the beginning rereading what I’ve written the day.  I discovered that if you’re too much of a perfectionist in the beginning you’ll never get anywhere, that’s number one.  And number two, you don’t know what you’ve got until you’ve written a first draft.  So the key is writing the first draft, getting it finished and knowing it’s a first draft, then carefully going back and reading it and paying attention to it.  For me, this is the way I work.  If you try to get the perfect first chapter before you begin to write the second chapter, you’ll never get to the second chapter.”

“Other people may be able to hold more in their memories and in their minds so they can write about a longer stretch, but I always have to write as I do research.  If you write while you do research you sort of understand what research you still have to do because historians think on paper.  I’ve got to write down something to know what I’m thinking.  Nothing makes me crazier than students who say ‘Well, I know what I want to say, I’ve figured it all out I just haven’t put it on paper.’  If you haven’t put it on paper, you haven’t figured it out and you don’t know what you want to say.”

Reviewers and readers alike almost universally acknowledge the overwhelming amount of new evidence presented in the biographies of Hearst, Carnegie, and Kennedy.  I asked Nasaw about the standards by which he measures the quality of historical works in terms of research.

“The historian has to do as much research as she or he can possibly do,” said Nasaw.  “Then there is something called the historical imagination which kicks in.  It is not the same imagination as the poet or the playwright or the visual artist uses, but it is an active imaginative construction nonetheless.  And only when we understand that can we be true to the evidence.”

In the spring of 2012, a good deal of editing remained to be done on The Patriarch.  Nasaw wasn’t exaggerating when he had gestured to a stack of paper more than a foot tall and told me, “It was once 1500 pages.  It needs to be half that long.”

Asked now about the length of the manuscript prior to revisions, Nasaw said, “It needed that edit.  It was not only too long in words, but it was too baggy.  There was too much that didn’t advance the story.”

“A friend told me this wonderful, wonderful story about a great European chef who said the secret to great cooking is reduction.  You take a sauce and reduce it slowly for hour after hour after hour and as you reduce it gets richer and richer and richer and richer.  And I hope that’s the case with writing.”

Nasaw has managed to not only meet the deadlines necessary for releasing the book around the time of the 2012 election, but also produced the book more quickly than he thought otherwise possible.  “I’ve worked unbelievably hard.  I think I’ve done ten years of work in six years.  I’ve worked seven days per week from January through September,” he said.


One spring afternoon this year Professor Nasaw walked out of his office to ask graduate students working nearby about LL Cool J.  He was unfamiliar with this particular public figure, who had mentioned Nasaw’s biography of Andrew Carnegie as a favorite book in a major newsmagazine.

Students described LL Cool J as a rapper and actor, then listened for evidence that Nasaw spent the rest of the afternoon browsing YouTube and discovering an oeuvre that includes “Mama Said Knock You Out” and “Imagine That.”  They would be disappointed; Nasaw tries not to interrupt his writing with visits to websites unless he is purposely taking a break.

When I asked about LL Cool J, Nasaw laughed.  “That was one of my favorite things.  I got a note from the woman who does our car insurance.”  She mentioned that LL Cool J had selected a biography about Andrew Carnegie by a David Nasaw as one of his favorite books.  “And she said, ‘Are you this David Nasaw?’  And I said, ‘Yeah,’ and that made it for me.”

As an academic writing for an audience that includes both scholars and rappers, Nasaw sees many reasons to be optimistic about the engagement of historians with a broader audience.  “I don’t believe that we’re all getting as stupid as some public commentators believe.  There are a lot of people out there who want to learn history.  And they want to learn from historians.”

Asked about the prospect of starting another biography, Nasaw admits, “I’m biographied out.  The idea of starting this process again is just too overwhelming, just too much.”

See his Graduate Center talk with Gary Giddins here – http://fora.tv/2012/11/19/David_Nasaw_on_Joseph_P_Kennedy_The_Patriarch 

And his Daily Show appearance here –




One Comment

  1. Pingback: Los mejores libros del año 2012: historia « Clionauta: Blog de Historia

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